The Wall Street Journal
The Iraqi Orchestra Is Here
Why is the State Department keeping it quiet?
Thursday, December 11, 2003 12:01 a.m. EST

WASHINGTON--What does it take to get some service around here?

Several weeks ago, I was asked by this newspaper to write an advance article
on the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra's visit to Washington. Their
concert, which took place this Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, included
Maestro Leonard Slatkin, the (American) National Symphony Orchestra and
cellist Yo-Yo Ma. President and Mrs. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell
and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were in attendance.

As an immigrant from Iraq with extensive knowledge of the issues, I would
interview the musicians about their situation, and that of artists in
general, under Saddam and in the new, post-Saddam era. I would look at what
orchestra members have been through--the general manager had served 16 years
in prison because he refused to work as a spy for the regime. And I would
try to learn about the orchestra members' hopes for the future, their
institution and for Iraqi arts and culture as a whole.

This was a good news story for the government. As Mr. Powell said in
introducing the orchestra on Tuesday night, "What we're about to hear is the
sound of hope, the sweet, sweet sound of freedom." So you'd have thought
that people at the State Department and the Kennedy Center would have been
falling over themselves in the weeks before the concert to arrange media
access. Instead, they acted more as if they had defectors from the North
Korea Symphony Orchestra on their hands and as if the slightest press
exposure would trigger an international incident.

The Kennedy Center responded to my first e-mails, sent more than a month
ago, by telling me they did not know when the Iraqis would arrive, nor what
their schedule would be. Still in the dark two weeks later, I was told by a
perturbed Kennedy Center official that this was a "complex operation
involving the White House, the State Department, the Kennedy Center and
[Washington] National Symphony."

A week later I tried the State Department, co-sponsor with the Kennedy
Center of the event, but made even less headway. No spokesperson would say
when the orchestra would arrive, nor would they tell me anything about their
schedule or even whether I'd be able to make contact with an orchestra

I did manage to get contact information for Hisham Sharaf, director of the
Iraqi orchestra. But I had to open a back channel to do so, one that led
from an acquaintance in Cleveland, where I live, to a music collector, to a
retired music critic in Cleveland, to a violinist in Vermont who'd formed a
group called Young Musicians Without Borders to aid the Iraqi orchestra and
their school, to a Norwegian aid group through which the Vermonter was

I e-mailed Mr. Sharaf and called him a couple of days later. No response. I
appealed to the Norwegians as well as an old friend, Sultan Khatib, a top
Iraqi concert pianist in the Gulf, for help. The phone number I had for Mr.
Sharaf in Baghdad, it turns out, is a cell phone with a New York area code.
When I called again, five days before the concert, I was told Mr. Sharaf was
in Jordan and was due to leave there the next day, Friday night. From that,
I deduced the Iraqis would arrive in America on Saturday, three days before
the concert.

Meanwhile, officials in Washington would not confirm my hunch about the
Iraqis' arrival date. Calls to the State Department and the Kennedy Center
yielded only that the Iraqis would arrive "late in the weekend." Midway
through last week, Tikki Davies, a Kennedy Center official, said that there
was no chance to meet with any of the Iraqis before the concert, as "they
will be totally busy from the time they arrive--practicing, meeting, with
the [Washington] National Symphony--from morning till late at night." If I
wanted to meet with anybody, she said, I was to attend an event the Iraqis
would have for schoolchildren, the day after the concert--too late for my
deadline. Later, I learned that a rehearsal was opened up to the press--for
all of 15 minutes. Members of the press, though, were kept more than 11 rows
from the stage. After my repeated prodding and insistence last week, Adam
Meier, the State Department person handling the Iraqi orchestra, said he was
"working to get me time with one or two [orchestra] members before the

By then, my search had led beyond State and the Kennedy Center. I was
contacting people in the Washington National Symphony, the Defense
Department and the Coalition Provisional Authority. Invariably, my messages
went unreturned.

I left Cleveland to drive to Washington on Friday, making more calls along
the way. By my count, I had now spoken with 31 officials and had no more
information than when I'd started. Still, I made a second round of phone
calls later in the afternoon.

How absurd was this getting? My cousin, newly appointed Iraqi ambassador to
Washington, called a contact in the National Security Council on late Friday
afternoon, asking them to assist me. She later told me that even she would
have no access to the orchestra until just before their Tuesday evening

Maybe older modes of communication would work. The Kennedy Center official
agreed to deliver a note to the Iraqis, but that, too, turned into a comedy
of errors. I arrived at the center on Saturday only to be told the official
was in a meeting but that someone would come down to get my note. I waited
for two hours but nobody came down. I later learned the note had been
delivered, but I couldn't find out to whom. Nor did I get a response to the

Sunday morning, I received a call from the State Department handler, Adam
Meier, saying that he would see if the Iraqis would be willing to meet with
the press, and if I could join them for dinner that evening. Progress? Not
really. At four in the afternoon, he called back to say the Iraqis were too
busy for a dinner meeting.

The next morning, Mr. Meier finally explained the runaround: "That's the
policy with these kinds of exchange programs--not to give out information."
Too true. When I asked Patricia O'Kelly, with the National Symphony, how
many hours the Iraqis would be rehearsing that day, she replied, "I'm sorry,
I'm not going to discuss their schedule."

Monday afternoon I picked up a voice-mail message informing me that three
Iraqis would be available to the press in just over an hour--again for just
20 minutes. At the meeting, the Iraqis spoke of their desire to "disseminate
Iraqi culture and music" abroad and to improve their abilities through
interactions with foreign experts. Afterward, as they were escorted out to
dinner, I caught up with them and found out where they were staying.

Over the weekend my editors' displeasure with the runaround had filtered
back to the State Department. Suddenly, they couldn't do enough for me.
Monday night, I received an e-mail from no less a personage than State
Department spokesman Richard Boucher offering assistance. The next morning I
picked up a message from Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and
Cultural Affairs Patricia Harrison, who was the top official involved in the
Iraqi orchestra visit. "I wish you'd called me earlier, but in any case
there's plenty of time," it said. In fact, I had called her a week earlier
and heard nothing back.

That afternoon, as I entered the Kennedy Center, Assistant Secretary
Harrison offered me an interview--with her, about her wider efforts on
behalf of Iraqi culture. I declined, pointing out that my immediate need was
in talking to the Iraqi musicians. "We're afraid for them when they go back
to Iraq, how people will react to them," she said. She invited me to a
postconcert reception.

The day before, Mr. Meier had asked me how my story was going and said to
me, "I'm giving you access where other people didn't get it."

Considering that at no time throughout the assignment did I have a chance to
talk at any length with a member of the Iraqi National Symphony, that was
small consolation.

Mr. Rahim is a free-lance journalist.

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